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Leader of the Left: He knew how to run a front

Print edition : Feb 12, 2010 T+T-


THE Left Front leaders who converged in Kolkata to pay tribute to the veteran Marxist leader extolled his commitment to the working class, to federalism and to secularism; and the unique ability he had shown in keeping the Left Front going and the expertise he had in managing the coalition.

He never ceased to be a trade unionist.

A.B. Bardhan, general secretary, Communist Party of India.

I HAD the privilege of meeting Comrade Jyoti Basu as early as 1946 when as a railway trade union organiser, he came to Nagpur to address a meeting of the employees of the Bengal-Nagpur Railway, which later became the South-Eastern Railway. The union at that time was led by V.R. Kalappa, a close associate of V.V. Giri, and we were organising a union there. Jyoti Basu was the president of the Railroad Workers Union and Indrajit Gupta was the secretary, as far as I can remember, and both of them came to Nagpur. That was my first meeting with him. I was already a student activist, one of the secretaries of the All India Students Federation, and was moving towards the trade union movement.

All through his life, till the end, even when Jyoti Basu was Chief Minister, he performed so many duties but never ceased to be a trade unionist. In fact, some people said that now that he was Chief Minister, he would not find the time for the trade union, but he proved otherwise.

He was the all-India vice-president of the All India Trade Union Congress until the CPI split and then he became the vice-president of the CITU; he held the position even at the time of his death. That shows his commitment to the working people he always found time to be a trade union organiser.

I was also a member of the general council of the AITUC and had occasion to hear Jyoti Basu who was one of its vice-presidents. One such memorable occasion was when he and other communist leaders in Kolkata led the famous movement against the one-paisa increase in the tram fare. Todays generation may find it difficult to believe that even a one-paisa hike could bring the entire city to a halt. But his argument was that the money was transferred from the pocket of the poor who travelled by second class in the tram and went to the pockets of the Calcutta Tramway Company, which was a British company then. Today, prices are going up by leaps and bounds, not in paisas but in rupees, and yet we dont find a movement. That was the spirit in those days and Jyoti Basu was one of the prominent leaders of the movement. We had a meeting of the general council of the AITUC in Delhi and he came all the way to report about that movement.

Jyoti babu, through the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s, was a fighter, a man who organised workers and struggled for their rights. I was declared an absconder in Nagpur in those days and went underground in Kolkata. Jyoti babu was put in prison in 1948-49. He was the leader of Jaya Engineering workers; Jaya Engineering used to manufacture Usha sewing machines. He was the president of several other unions, including those in the engineering industry. This was an aspect of his early life as a trade unionist, which is generally not known.

People have known him more as a leader of the Left Front and as the Chief Minister of West Bengal. The foundation of the Left Front, in my view, was that West Bengal always had been a State with a tradition of radical movements, including the freedom struggle. Many people, who the British used to call terrorists, were quite powerful in Bengal. That is why Bengal also saw militant and radical movements by the peasantry. The Tebhaga struggle is an example. The State also witnessed a massive man-made famine in the days of the War, in 1943. All these created a foundation for the Left. These are all struggles through which the Communist Party grew. All these movements had to face severe repression by Congress governments led by B.C. Roy, P.C. Sen, Siddhartha Shankar Ray. Jyoti babu became the voice of the common people fighting against these very tall personalities.

I should say that he was the architect of the Left Front, and the expertise he had in managing the coalition is a lesson for all of us who are thinking of fronts and coalitions. No party, however small, was ever taken for granted by him. He took all of them along, consulted them, gave them the position and importance they deserved.

During the 23-year-long period he was Chief Minister, the Left Front government, despite occasional hiccups and mutual rivalries, nevertheless ran as a team because Jyoti babu knew how to run a front. One thing he emphasised was that the police, the bureaucracy and the administration should be under the control of the political authority he never let the bureaucracy usurp its powers. One of the first things that Jyoti Basu did as Chief Minister was to declare that the police will not interfere in any agitation. This was a big departure from the earlier Congress rule when movements and struggles of the people were brutally repressed. It brings to mind that exactly 50 years ago, 80 people were shot down by the police when they were agitating against food price rise. This announcement that the police will not interfere gave confidence to the working people in the town and the countryside to organise themselves.

The second big achievement of his administration was that when communal riots took place in many parts of the country, they could not happen in West Bengal. Even the slightest occurrence of attacks on the lives and properties of minorities was immediately put down. It gave a sense of protection to the minorities. West Bengal has thus been an example of secular harmony through all these three decades in contrast to the rest of the country. Of course, it will be wrong to attribute all these achievements to Jyoti babu in person; it was the collective achievement of the Left Front, but Jyoti babu was the head of the front.

Unfortunately, the Communist Party split in 1964, when the CPI(M) was formed, and Jyoti babu became one of its leaders. He was earlier on the top-most committees, in the top leadership, of the united Communist Party and later he went on to be part of the top-most leadership of the CPI(M). It was no surprise that when the secular and democratic parties, the non-Congress and non-BJP parties, achieved a majority in Parliament, all of them unanimously thought of Jyoti babu as the natural candidate for the prime ministership. This did not happen despite two attempts made by all the other parties. I happened to be one of the messengers who went to the office of the CPI(M) to request that the party should reconsider its first decision and allow Jyoti babu to become the Prime Minister. Unfortunately, the second such attempt also failed. It was Jyoti babu himself who proposed that an experienced Chief Minister like H.D. Deve Gowda could be thought of as the prime ministerial candidate. As all us know, Jyoti babu termed the rejection by his party as a historic blunder. I think had he become the Prime Minister, a precedent would have been created just as 32 years of the Left Front in West Bengal has created a historical precedent of communists being in power in a State through the ballot. Jyoti babu as Prime Minister would have created a precedent of a Left-led secular democratic coalition in the country. How long that could have lasted is a different question, but it would have been a historic precedent.

I will conclude by saying that Jyoti babu was in more than one sense a creator of a historical period in which Left forces have been at the forefront in a State and could also have played a role in national politics. As a communist, socialism was his goal. He has been the involuntary leader of the struggle that has been going on. After him, we have been left behind to carry on this struggle, and the Left unity that he built has to be further consolidated as a collective unity.